By; Israel Bonan
At a recent academic forum held in October 2005 at Brandeis University in Waltham MA, addressing what would be the next steps to take to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian issue and to come to terms with what can and needs to be done, his Excellency Nabil Fahmi, the Egyptian Ambassador to Washington DC was the Keynote speaker.
A full account of what transpired during the questions and answers session that ensued is available in my previous article Restitution for Egyptian Jews versus Palestinian rights
His Excellency was asked by my son to respond to the following statement and question:
My father is a Jew who was born in Egypt and still possesses many fond memories of Egypt and the friends he left behind, who were protective of him and his family during years of persecution. But he is also sure you are aware that previous governments have caused many injustices to a great many of the Jews from Egypt, such as by incarcerating them, mistreating them, confiscating all of their money and property, and eventually expelling them from Egypt.
My father is keenly interested in asking you whether the current Egyptian Government is ready for a rapprochement with the estranged Jewish community. And what steps ought and should be taken to acknowledge that episode in history and see to it that it is redressed. Is an apology overdue? After all, the US apologized to Japanese Americans for what it did during WWII, isn't it time, your Excellency, Egypt did the same?
The essence of his Excellency’s response was as follows,
The Ambassador replied that the Japanese example is different, that Egypt has paid some restitution to Jews from Egypt? And that if we are expecting President Mubarak to apologize, the answer is, “No”. We want to move forward and nothing is to be gained by rehashing the past, or in trying to determine who was right and who was wrong!!
Yes your Excellency, I agree with you when you say the US/Japanese American case is different from our case, and here is why I agree:
The Japanese Americans were incarcerated during WWII because they were Japanese, and at the start of the war between the US and Japan, the US national security interest was deemed to be threatened and required such a draconian action on the part of the politicians and the government.
While in Egypt, it was our minority status as Jews that set us apart, we were Jews and on our ID cards we carried, with government insistence, we were dubbed under our religious affiliation as ‘Israeli’ (Esraeeli); but not as Jews “Yahoudi”!! It was your Excellency a case of guilt by “religious” association; and it did not matter whether we were a third generation born to Egypt or a sixth, we were Israelis.
A short while after WWII ended, the Japanese were released and went back to their homes, businesses and properties.
The Jews of Egypt, on the other hand, remained jailed and tortured for extended periods of time after the successive wars that ended in 1948, 1956 and after the war of 1967 for up to three years. They were summarily expelled thereafter from Egypt, after signing the documents of their release, ceding in the process all claims to their assets, under duress, and after pledging never to return back. I believe on this one we agree 100% your Excellency, the case is totally different.
And yet the US saw the perpetrated human rights abuses as unacceptable in our day and age, and opted for acknowledgement and redress with the wronged Japanese American community; but not Egypt vis a vis her Jewish community!
Now your Excellency, here is where we disagree.
When you suggest that Egypt paid some restitution back to the Jews from Egypt, we can only count those with foreign nationalities, where their sovereign foreign governments interceded on behalf of all their nationals residing in Egypt, at the time, and who were expelled during these years of turmoil. A meager percentage of their net worth was agreed upon and paid, to all such nationals, including the Jews amongst them.
How do you account your Excellency for the more than 50,000 Jews who were stateless, with no country to call their own, or the few who were Egyptian nationals? Their country of birth took away their livelihoods and their assets and expelled them; the lucky ones amongst them, with less than twenty dollars in their pockets and a few pounds worth of their belongings? The rest of them, escorted from jail to port of exit, with the clothes on their backs. What about them your Excellency? Wouldn’t you agree that Egypt created a new set of Middle Eastern refugees in the process?
When your Excellency suggested that … we do not need to rehash the past and determine who was right and who was wrong … do you consider such answer to be the right or the best way to reconcile? Was that your recommendations for Israel vis a vis the Palestinians?
Isn’t reconciliation about acknowledgement of past wrongs and a pledge to view the future under a better light, unhampered by past actions from all sides?
We, the Jews from Egypt, can withstand history’s scrutiny, and welcome it; can the past Egyptian governments withstand it too? Please explain to us, your Excellency, how the Jewish community of Egypt harmed Egypt, especially in 1967 when we numbered a mere 5,000, shrinking by the day, with more than twice that number of secret (Mukhabarat) police monitoring every move we made?
What gives Egypt the right to pontificate about Israel and the Palestinian situation, when it cannot even acknowledge the misdeeds to her past Jewish community?
Why did any of us who were jailed and tortured deserve such treatment? Abu Za’abal, Tura; do you want the list of names of the jailed individuals, your Excellency, for the record? They are only a click away on the Web.
For the ones who lingered more than three years in jail, your Excellency, their crimes must have been of significant proportion; can we open up the books and find out about their crimes? Allow me to refresh our collective memories, they were merely JEWS living in Egypt; or as the government used to call them intentionally “Israelis”.
Your Excellency, this is not about money, it is about respect and fairness.
This is about human right abuses, perpetrated against the Jewish community of Egypt.
This is about Egypt, who is trying to find her place as the more enlightened country in the Arab world, only it cannot tell what was right and what was wrong and is letting pride get in the way of reconciliation.
This is about hope, your Excellency, for the future; and all you worried about was money and pride.
When the question was originally asked of you, your Excellency, we gave the current government enough leverage to distance itself from the actions of the past repressive regimes, only to hear your unequivocal assertion that “NO” apology will be forthcoming.
It is very hard to misinterpret such an emphatic “NO” and now it is the current government that we have an issue with and not Nasser’s alone anymore. Was that what you and Egypt wanted, your Excellency? I hope not; I believe we can still, at the end of the day, see eye to eye on this issue and I pray that it will be so, and soon.